On August 2 and 3, ninety or so union workers, union staff, labor educators, and allies gathered together at the University of Maine in Orono for the Maine AFL-CIO’s Summer Institute. Convening in the Wells Conference Center, in a room filled with portraits of labor leaders and banners celebrating unions and organized labor, visitors attended panels about recent and ongoing organizing efforts, partook in training, saw presentations about ongoing issues in the labor movement, listened to labor songs and poems, and made connections with each other. 

The Summer Institute opened with remarks from President of the Maine AFL-CIO Cynthia Phinney and Executive Director Matt Schlobohm. An in depth land acknowledgment followed, explaining the history of how the land the University stands on was coerced from the Penobscot natives that lived on it, affirming the State AFL-CIO’s support of ongoing efforts at restoring sovereignty to the Wabanaki tribes in Maine. 

The institute featured a number of panels, the first of which included workers that had engaged in recent organizing drives, including an ATU member and Bangor bus driver, two MSNA members from Maine Medical Center, two graduate workers from the newly recognized UAW union at the University of Maine at Orono, and two workers that had been involved in the unsuccessful drive to organize Bates College with MSEA. These workers discussed their strategies, tactics, and critiques of their efforts and fielded questions from the audience.

Later on the same day, Francis Eanes of the Maine Labor Climate Council gave a presentation on how the labor movement engages with climate change and the environmental movement. Despite the two movements often being at odds with one another, Eanes urged them to work together to combat  the existential threat of climate change. He highlighted the successful passage of LD 1895, “An Act Regarding the Procurement of Energy from Offshore Wind Resources,” which will spur the development of offshore wind energy harnessing in Maine. Environmentalists, the Building Trades Unions, and the Lobstering Union all played a key role in designing and passing this law even after Governor Mills vetoed a similar bill. Eanes urged the labor movement to be more proactive about this issue because if they didn’t present a vision for a green future, capitalists would do it without the labor movement.

After Eanes spoke, Sam Boss gave a presentation on the Union Construction Academy, a program of the Maine AFL-CIO, and explored how unions might fill the many rapidly emerging green energy jobs. The academy is a pre-apprenticeship program designed to prepare BIPOC individuals, immigrants, women, justice involved, and other working-class Mainers to graduate into an apprenticeship program in the building and construction trades.

The second day of the Summer Institute opened with a presentation that dove into the issue of agricultural workers, migrant labor in the industry, their lack of labor protections in law, and how organized labor has often left these people behind. Katie Schools, an intern at the state AFL-CIO and a former farm worker, highlighted her experience as a teenager working in agriculture. Many in the crowd were appalled to hear her stories of child labor, terrible conditions, subminimum wages, extensive overtime (which in agriculture is not required to be paid at a 1.5x rate), and terrible bosses. Even she was surprised to find that, upon reflection, none of the photos she had from her multiple years working on the farm included the migrant laborers that worked alongside her, likely so that there would be no evidence they were ever actually employed by the farmer. 

Dr. Michael Hillard, a Professor of Economics at the University of Southern Maine, then explained the history of the exclusion of agricultural workers from the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act. This exclusion was rooted in the racist deals Northern Democrats made with Southern Democrats in the 1930s to exclude agriculture, predominantly staffed by people of color in the South, from labor protections. Matt Schlobohm then discussed the recent legislative history of bills meant to help farmworkers, all of which failed to pass Governor Mills’ veto. Notably, he stated that no farmworkers were present to support these legislative efforts. Arthur Phillips of the Maine Center for Economic Policy then shared the little data that the State of Maine has on migrant workers, most of which comes from a Department of Labor study conducted in 2015, and explained how state law not recognizing these workers as “employees” makes any effort to collect data on the working conditions of these people more challenging. He did describe how most farms employing migrant labor were wealthy enough to hire a significant workforce, with more than three-quarters of farms employing migrant workers employing more than five people. Emma McDowell of Mano en Mano, a mutual aid organization for migrant workers in Milbridge, Maine, then talked about her experience working with these migrant workers. Anecdotally, there are many more migrant farmworkers than the State’s data would suggest according to her. The panel then closed with Matthew Emmick, Director of the new Charles A. Scontras Labor & Community Education Center, who shared his experience organizing agricultural workers in North Carolina with the AFL-CIO’s Farm Labor Organizing Committee and the unique approaches it took to reach these workers and win contracts with farmers and buyers. 

The Summer Institute also included training for its attendees, most of which were based on the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s “Organizing for Power” series. The first day included a training on the structured organizing conversation in which attendees watched a demonstration and roleplayed discussing issues with workers and moving them to action. Later, there was a training on semantics and word choice when organizing. Organizers were taught to utilize language that centers and empowers workers rather than using language that third parties the union or makes it seem like a collaborative effort. This is because ultimately, power is derived from workers, not union staff. On the second day, Sarah Bigney-McCabe, Organizing Director at the Maine AFL-CIO, conducted a training on structure tests, a method of testing the effectiveness of organizing through collective action. 

As the institute closed, attendees were reminded to think about what they had learned over the past two days and to bring the skills and ideas they learned about back to the members of their unions and organizations. Before they left, a majority of attendees rose up and joined hands to sing the classic union hymn “Solidarity Forever,” celebrating their time together and their common struggle.